What Role Does the Supernatural play in “Macbeth”?
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In order to understand the true influence of witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you must first look at the context it was written in. Macbeth was written just after the turn of the 17th century when James the sixth of Scotland assumed the throne of England.
The king had a fascination with the supernatural; witchcraft, apparitions and ghosts, and the evil that these things can create. All of these were of great concern to James, he even wrote a book on the subject. During the same decade Shakespeare wrote King Lear, which heavily focussed on Madness and the chain of being as the King lost control. The theory was that is something happened to the king; everything below in the chain/hierarchy would be affected, which is everything on the planet. Hamlet was also written at this time, this has many references to ghosts and the influence that this has on Hamlet and his sanity.
People at the time also believed in witch craft and perceived it to be a genuine threat to the social order. This was common place at the time all over the Christian world. Shakespeare uses Macbeth in order explore and show what would happen if the social order was influenced by the supernatural. This in a sense is reaffirming the social order by taking it apart in Macbeth.
The first incident involving the supernatural is the opening of the play with the introduction of the witches. The first scene of Macbeth opens with the witches meeting in the middle of a thunderstorm; this creates an air of tension and mystery around the scene and the witches. This is a prime example of pathetic fallacy where the weather and nature is used to create an air of tension and suspicion, as well as making clear the characters intentions or emotions.
In more modern film versions, the witches have been portrayed as young females or males. However in older versions they have been portrayed as the stereotypical old women standing around a smoking cauldron. Yet in Macbeth and Banquos’s description (A.1 S.3) they are made out to be ambiguous creatures, not necessarily being male or female ‘Upon her skinny lips; you should be a woman, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret.’ This leads to speculation as to what the witches look like, whether they are neutral beings, not one gender in particular.
It is possible to think however, that the witches may well have been social outcasts, which have turned to the black arts as a form of retribution on the world. (A.1 S.1), one witch was a beggar ‘Give me, quoth I, Aroint thee, witch the rump fed runnion cries.’ It was not uncommon at the time Macbeth was written for the poor to be the first accused of witchery.
Yet later on (A.1 S.3) after giving Macbeth and Banquo their prophecies they vanish into thin air, this allows speculation as to wether they are in fact supernatural. It is obviously beyond reason to expect a normal people to simply vanish.
In (A.1 S.3) the witches set about delivering their prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo. By this stage in the play the audience already has a sense of apprehension about the witches, by Shakespeare’s use of pathetic fallacy and the witches usage of couplets ‘Fair is foul an foul is fair.’ This means: good is bad and good is bad; they are violating the chain of being and God’s natural order. So even before the prophecies are delivered, the audience is questioning whether or not they can be trusted and if there is foul play at work.
The witches, before Macbeth’s entrance, speak of their plans, and leave some clues as to what might happen to Macbeth. ‘I’ll drain him dry as hay:’ this links heavily with Macbeth’s downfall, ‘Sleep shall he not night and day;’ as well as his madness. At the time this is said the audience do not even know the predictions, let alone the downfall of Macbeth. This is could be an indicator that the witches truly can predict the future; this is an example of proleptic irony. It also written in rhyming couplets as is most of the witch’s speech; this is an indicator of the importance of what is being said, as it is in most Shakespeare.
When the witches give their predictions of glory, they do not go into detail, this leaves both Macbeth and Banquo questioning the authenticity of the predictions. Even after this, there is still much doubt in both their minds as to whether this is true or not, ‘to be king stands not within the prospect of belief.’ Soon however, there is curiosity and excitement, as what has just transpired sinks in. Macbeth is oblivious to everything else. Lost in thought at the prospect of his future Kingship, he comments to himself “As happy prologues to the swelling act, of the imperial theme.”
The prospect takes hold of his mind. However this does not necessarily mean the supernatural is involved. The witches may have just heard about the treacherous thane earlier on, as well as Duncan claiming to leave Macbeth his crown. All of this was stated in earlier scenes, which means that the witches may have just heard gossip, and passed it on to Macbeth, for their own earthly jokes. However, they may in fact be sinister witches who are merely toying with Macbeth for their own sport. They may have not gone into detail deliberately as a ploy to draw the un-suspecting Macbeth into their supernatural arena. The lack of instruction as well as detail, leads Macbeth’s mind to wander dangerously.
The excitement at the news is where the similarities between Banqou and Macbeth end. They are both examples of static and dynamic characterisation. Banquo is an example of static characterisation; he withstands the trial and remains pure throughout, he does not sink to sinful levels in order to make his prophecies become real. Where as Macbeth is an example of dynamic characterisation, he falls into illusion and loses his integrity, and commits to acts of sin by killing Duncan in order to complete his own set of prophecies. It is possible to think Macbeth would never have done this, unless the witches hadn’t spoken to him, as he displayed no intention or malice in earlier scenes.
Yet at the same time Macbeth overcomes his ambition for a while, and says he will not have ‘a part in this.’ It is Lady Macbeth, who after reading Macbeth’s letter, talks him round to the murder. This indicates the supernatural did not influence Macbeth, but Lady Macbeth, another human. Lady Macbeth in her soliloquy, speaks to the spirit world, and asks to be ‘unsexed,’ this links in with the issue about the gender of the witches. How at this level of evil, it was believed in Elizabethan times, one becomes neautral. In this scene there is another example of the imagery of blood ‘Make thick my blood’ this imagery is common throughout the play, and of course links in with the murders.
Another encounter Macbeth has with the supernatural is Banquo’s ghost (A3. S.4). here the supernatural intent is terrifically developed: we have previously met the witches and their prophecies, the kingship, the glory, and now we have the ghost of Banquo. But Banquo saw and heard the witches with Macbeth, here only Macbeth sees Banquo. The timing of the Ghosts entrance is superb, Macbeth has just received word of Banquo’s murder, yet he also learns Banquo’s son Fleance has escaped. Banquo appears at the feast, all of Macbeths Thanes are there. There is also the irony of Banquo occupying Macbeth’s seat, this links in with Banquo’s children being next in line to the throne. This understandably has an affect on Macbeth’s state of mind. He is still guilt ridden from the murder of Duncan, and now this pushes him over the edge, from this point on Macbeth becomes somewhat more heartless and determined then before, he embraces the evil. ‘Ay, a bold one that dare look on that which might appal the devil.’
A comparison we can make is Hamlet, Hamlet’s father returns to Hamlet and demands he takes vengeance by killing his king and uncle. We can tell Hamlet is startled as Macbeth is at first, yet there are similarities of the timing of the ghosts. Both appeared at the high points of the main characters and after, it was all downhill for both Macbeth and Hamlet. However unlike the evil obsessed Macbeth, Hamlet displays signs of being genuine by his reaction to his task.
The next time Macbeth comes in direct contact with the witches is (A.4 S.1), his three apparitions. Before the entry of Macbeth the witches cast a spell, along with the witch queen Hectate. This leads many to believe that the supernatural did indeed influence Macbeth and his state of mind, as Hectate was such a major character in ancient demonology, she was believed to be a very powerful witch.
The disturbing detail of the ingredients of the spell is yet further proof of the evil of these witches. ‘Liver of blaspheming Jew, Gall of Goat, and slips of yew,’ Religion and the chain of being is also brought back with the use of the word blaspheming as well as others. As of course blaspheming is one of the Ten Commandments. Verse couplets are also used, and it is entirely appropriate as it suggests the words of spells and incantations.
Before Macbeth arrives he is not even addressed as a person, just ‘something,’ he is now thought of as one of them, a neutral, this is in line with the dehumanising of Macbeth, the bestial imagery earlier mentioned proves this.
After Macbeth’s entry, the change is clear in him, he is now possessed demanding to know the future from these sinister creatures. He is told three things, these are Macbeth’s apparitions. The first is that he should fear Macduff. This is given in the shape of an armed head, possibly Macduff’s. This is an example of proleptic irony as it is infact Macduff who will kill Macbeth. After hearing this, there is no debate in Macbeths mind as to what to do, or even so much as talking about it, he commits himself to murder, on the word of these apparitions, this shows for sure a definite change in Macbeth, he is now a puppet, under the illusion and influence of these witches. Macbeth is then told by a bloody child he should fear none by a woman born.
This adds to Macbeth all-consuming arrogance, yet it is dramatic irony, as his eventual downfall looms. He is then hears he is safe until ‘Birnam wood to high Dunsain hill.’ He states this is impossible, and yet, it becomes reality.
It is difficult to see how fellow human beings could predict such a thing, which is why the supernatural has been seen to be involved, once again however there is a lack of instruction, which still leaves the door open to debate as to the witches possible intent or malice for Macbeth, or wether it was Macbeths human failing of ambition which leads to his demise.
It is true that the supernatural and witchcraft are thematically important throughout Macbeth, which is not uncommon in this chapter of Shakespeare’s writing. Yet is Macbeth influenced? Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at various points along the way spoke to the spirit world. Lady Macbeth asks demonic spirits to possess her body and mind, and remove all human weakness. Lady Macbeth embraces the evil and allows herself to be influenced. At the start all be it for a short time, Macbeth rises above the predictions and tries to remain pure as Banquo did. Yet the crucial point is he could not ignore the visions of glory the witches put in his mind. All be it they did not instruct him to sin, this triggered his ambition ‘I have no spur….but only/vaulting ambition.’
The supernatural backdrop to the play intensifies our sense of evil; but does not dictate events. Macbeth is a free agent and has free will. There is no tragedy at all without the realisation that Macbeth has chosen his course of action, and each subsequent action is reaffirming the original decision, the bad choice.